Culture

A Lifelong Tryst With Handicrafts 

On National Handloom Day, as we ponder the Modi government’s abolition of Handicrafts Board, created to give craftspeople a voice in free India, Gulshan Nanda, 90, recalls her post-Partition story – as a student associated with refugee handicrafts who became part of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s pioneering vision.

In the past four months, the pandemic-induced lockdown triggered the biggest migrant crisis in India since Partition, leading to dislocation, loss of livelihood and distress on an unimaginable scale. In this period of unrelieved gloom, made worse by an apathetic establishment and society, 90-year-old Gulshan Nanda recalled her post-Partition story that is at once a personal account and a slice of history of a newly independent nation emerging from the convulsions of a violent upheaval – with people from all walks of life coming together to lift themselves out of despair. 

Nanda’s story of how her sister and she helped out at a refugee camp in Delhi – where women were encouraged to create handicrafts as a source of livelihood and healing – flowed seamlessly into a larger story of the efforts of towering figures like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay to revive indigenous crafts as an important component in the rebuilding of independent India, leading to the establishment of the Central Cottage Industries Emporium. It was an experience that shaped Nanda’s lifelong journey, with handicrafts as its central motif.

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In August 1947, I was pursuing my bachelor’s degree in Economics from Indraprastha College for Women, in Delhi University. I travelled by bus mostly, but on occasion, I would make the return journey by bullock cart to Irwin Road (now Baba Kharak Singh Marg) where we lived.

My father, Kishan Lal, worked in the Ministry of Finance. Since Simla was the summer capital of British India we moved there every year from April to October. Our schools also moved as did all the shops. In fact, I was born in Simla. Our family originally hails from Multan (in undivided Punjab)

In May 1947, owing to the uncertainty regarding the future, my elder sister, Rajesh Nandini, had been forced to return to Delhi, abandoning her position as a lecturer of history at Islamia College in Lahore. She had moved to Lahore in 1943 to pursue her master’s degree at the Forman Christian College and had got the teaching post in early 1947.

Top: Gulshan Nanda in her student years: a volunteer at Kingsway camp.
Below: Gulshan’s elder sister Nandini worked closely with the women at Kingsway camp

Those were strange times, the first few months following Partition/Independence. In the prevailing atmosphere of violence, it was not unusual to come upon a corpse on the road, yet the day Nandini and I  stumbled upon one while walking from our home to the Gol dak khana (located at one end of Irwin Road), we were shaken to the core.

We hurried away from there, walking as fast as our feet would carry us on a familiar route that suddenly seemed alien. But the image remained imprinted on our minds and Nandini decided she needed to do something.

She spent the next few days cycling to the refugee camps in different parts of Delhi. One day, she went to the Red Fort area and found a large camp at the Diwan Hall in Chandni Chowk. She started spending her days there, helping out in any way she could – listening to the stories of the camp residents and lending a hand in the distribution of food that was being donated for them.

It was perhaps because of this connect that when these refugees were moved to the Kingsway Camp by the Ministry of Rehabilitation, Nandini was put in charge of distributing food and utensils that came in as donations, at Outram Lines (present-day Mukherjee Nagar, near Delhi University). The large camp was spread across Outram Lines, Hudson Lines and Edward Lines, with three army officers in charge. I too started going to the camp daily after college, as a volunteer.

The Ministry of Rehabilitation conceptualised a scheme whereby final year undergraduate students who faced the prospect of not being able to complete their degree due to the displacement caused by Partition, were offered graduation degrees in exchange for six months of voluntary work at the camp. Twenty volunteers joined us.

In her day-to-day interactions with the camp residents in Outram Lines, Nandini witnessed the trauma that the women were undergoing. While the men went about seeking employment, they were confined to the camp, trapped in their own grief as there was no way of sharing their experiences. What was needed was a means of connecting them.

Having lived in undivided Punjab, we had seen how women from different households would sit together in the afternoons exchanging stories as they carried on with their stitching and embroidery. Sometimes they would sing. Nandini felt it was important to create that sense of community at the camp – create a means of livelihood and solidarity which would enable the women to cope with their grief and loss. We went door to door to find out how many women at the camp knew how to stitch or embroider.

Then the wheels were set in motion. How people rallied around to help! Sardar Patel contacted mill owners he knew in Gujarat to ensure a regular supply of fabric – cotton and casement cloth. The sorting of fabric was done by the volunteers. Nandini, who knew tailoring and cutting, cut 20 salwar suits daily, and the women at the camp stitched them on the 20 sewing machines donated to Outram Lines by Sucheta Kripalani, who played such a vital role as secretary of the Relief and Rehabilitation Committee set up by the Congress. The women were paid four annas (25 paise) for each piece they stitched.

Women refugees at the Kingsway camp busy in sewing and knitting, September 1947. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India, Public domain

Those salwar suits were then sold to the camp residents for 8 annas (50 paise) per piece. So, with the payment they got for stitching two pieces the women could buy one piece. This gave them a  livelihood and above all hope.

Those who knew embroidery, including phulkari and cross stitch, began embroidering designs on the casement fabric which was not suitable for garments. This was made into table linen and bed linen. As the women worked on the sewing machines or embroidered, they shared their stories. The activity was both productive and therapeutic.

Advice on the colour scheme for embroidery and sizes of bedcovers, cushion covers and placemats came from  Teji Vir Singh, a young army widow who had started volunteering at the camp to get over her own grief by helping those whose identities had been reduced to just one description – ‘refugees’. Nandini would pick her up every morning from Red Fort, where she lived with her brother.

Rajesh Nandini went on to establish the Cosmopolitan Ladies Association in Bombay, where she lived after getting married. The association celebrated 60 years in 2019. Even today, at the age of 97, Nandini is actively engaged in the running of the old age home, Matri Sadan, she co-founded about 20 years ago.

By then Nandini had been provided a station wagon with a driver and fuel coupons for 60 gallons per week to perform her tasks more efficiently. It so happened that Dr Chaudhary of Lady Hardinge Medical College mentioned to Sucheta Kripalani that there was a young girl who was dashing around on a cycle for miles daily to assist in the relief efforts at Kingsway Camp! After making some enquiries, the Relief and Rehabilitation Committee of the Congress decided to help Nandini out by giving her the station wagon for her commute.

It was a time when women such as Prem Bery, Achamma Mathai, Fori Nehru and Kitty Shiva Rao, who were known for their involvement in social work, had fully immersed themselves in the rehabilitation effort. Mr Kaul of Pandit Brothers, in Connaught Place, offered a large counter for the display of the bed covers, pillows and cushions made and embroidered by the women at the camp.

Brisk sales were reported, so much so that the women selling our linen and bedcovers would often move from the counter to the carpets! Since double bedcovers were large in size they could be displayed effectively while sitting on the carpets.

A young Lakshmi Chand Jain who started volunteering at the Kingsway Camp and was soon noticed for his efforts and charisma. Photo: L.C. Jain family archive

Around that time, a young man studying at Delhi University started frequenting the camp to help in the organising of relief efforts. L.C. Jain, or Lakshmi as he was called, went on to become a well-known Gandhian economist, member of the Planning Commission and also High Commissioner to South Africa. At that time, however, he was just a student volunteer who had left the comforts of his parents’ home to stay at the Kingsway Camp day and night. Every time his parents sent their car to fetch him home he refused, hoping that they would understand his passion, having been freedom fighters themselves.

Over time, by dint of his effort and charisma, Lakshmi rose to be a leader at the camp. Nandini had been offered the position of camp commander. She felt, however, that Lakshmi would be better suited to the task.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhya, a pioneer in handicrafts revival who steered the Indian Cooperative Union to great heights.

When Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, freedom fighter and passionate advocate of the artisan’s craft, established the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU), Lakshmi was appointed its general secretary. During a visit to the Kingsway Camp, she had but one question – what is the future of the women? How will their efforts be sustained beyond the camp?

Seeing the successful sales of the bed linen and cushion covers at Pandit Brothers, she suggested that a shop which had been allotted to the ICU in Barakhamba Road be run as a refugee handicrafts store. That was how Refugee Handicrafts found its first home. Refugee Handicrafts sold items made at other camps also. I remember that refugees from the camps in Faridabad who, under the aegis of Kamaladevi and the ICU, were engaged in  building housing localities and industrial units that would provide a base for them, were sending baskets to the store.

Meanwhile, the Department of Industries had set up a shop located in the barracks on Queensway (renamed Janpath) to provide a market for artisans who had lost their source of patronage following the annexation of the princely states. This venture incurred a loss of Rs 6 lakh between 1948 and 1952. That was when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru requested Kamaladevi and the ICU to run it.

On November 15, 1952, the ICU assumed charge of the shop, and that is the day the Central Cottage Industries Emporium recognises as its founding day. Refugee Handicrafts was also absorbed by it.

Above: The author, Gulshan Nanda, a proud sales assistant at the Central Cottage Industries Emporium in Delhi (being run by the Indian Cooperative Union) in the 1950s, showing their wares to Gurmukh Nihal Singh, the then chief minister of Delhi.
Below: Gulshan Nanda lovingly displaying handicrafts at the Cottage Emporium in Delhi in the 1950s.

Looking back, I feel privileged to have worked alongside these selfless, accomplished, brilliantly creative individuals like Kamaladevi who worked tirelessly to bring about a renaissance in Indian handicrafts, seeing it as a vital aspect of the process of rebuilding India and showcasing its cultural heritage for the world to see.

In fact, Kamaladevi, Lakshmi and Teji Vir Singh played a huge role in shaping my life, career, and destiny. By then my sister had got married and was living in Bombay. I had recently completed my Master’s Degree in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics and was visiting Nandini when I received a telegram from Lakshmi, asking me to return to Delhi immediately so that I could start working at the Central Cottage Industries Emporium!

I, who had been thinking of applying for a teaching job, set out for Delhi the very next day, much to my sister’s dismay, for it was Diwali. I remember the Diwali of October 1952 like no other. I saw the festival of lights from the window of my train in so many cities, feeling I had celebrated it with so many people!

The celebration did not end there. It continued, for Kamaladevi was the president of Cottage Emporium, Lakshmi its general secretary, Teji Vir Singh the manager, and I was ensconced in my first job as sales assistant, drawing a salary of Rs 140 per month!

As told to Sapna Bhardwaj.

Gulshan Nanda, who retired as chairperson of the Central Cottage Industries Emporium in 2010, was awarded the Padma Shri in 2011 for promotion of handicrafts, a category created for the first time that year.